Photo from milroyyankees.com
Fans who watched Reed Lovsness pitch in townteam baseball games in the mid-1950s — and thousands did — saw one of southwest Minnesota’s most legendary athletes take the mound: a tall fireballer who rarely lost and never was afraid to be tough with a ball gripped in the fingers of his right hand.
He was so good that teams in the area paid him secretly to pitch for them on weekends, even though the game was formally called “amateur” ball.
But there is evidence from well beyond southwest Minnesota of how good a pitcher Lovsness was, and how much in demand he was.
Lovsness turned 90 on May 1. To mark that birthday, he and his sons Lindon and Kirk shared some of that evidence, and their thoughts on it.
Since his military service played a role in the path his baseball career took, it’s perhaps fitting to tell his story this Memorial Day Weekend.
The evidence of his abilities comes in the records of his time playing in southwest Minnesota in the 1950s, certainly. But additionally, his sons shared a handful of letters, now yellowed by time and bearing creases from where they were folded and put away for years in a box at a farmhouse.
They are letters written to Lovsness in 1953 by officials of the Pittsburgh Pirates, imploring him to return to an organization he had pitched in for three seasons in the late 1940s before joining the U.S. Army for three years.
The most insistent of the letters, dated Sept. 15, 1953, is a type-written message signed with a blue pen in an upward-slashing stroke by George Sisler, the major league Hall of Fame first baseman who twice batted better than .400 in a season and spent several years as director of scouting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then the Pirates. (see copy of letter at end of this blog)
Sisler was trying to do more than twist Lovsness’ arm, it seems.
“I think it would be wise for you to consider very seriously the idea of quitting professional baseball before actually doing so,” the letter from Sisler said. “If I were in your shoes, and if our reports are true, I would certainly start out next spring and make a serious effort to get to the top. It could be that you would be making a grave mistake by not giving professional baseball a further definite try.”
Earlier in 1953, in May, the Pirates assistant to the president had written Lovsness with a letter perhaps less stern than Sisler’s, but no less urgent. It offered to pay for Lovsness to travel to Pittsburgh to work out for Sisler and another major league Hall of Famer, the legendary Branch Rickey, who was Pittsburgh’s president/general manager.
“[They were] begging him to fly out at the Pirates’ expense,” said an admiring Lindon Lovsness of Cottonwood, Reed’s son. “For a one-day try out.”
The explanation for the Pirates’ intense interest in a 28-year-old farmer three years removed from his last pro game is two-fold. Reed Lovsness was good. And the Pirates of the early 1950s were not good. In 1953, they were early in a stretch of futility that lasted almost a decade. They lost 101 or more games three years in a row from 1952-54, and finished last in the eight-team National League in five of eight seasons between 1950 and 1957. In 1953, they were in a desperate hunt for talent when they came looking for Lovsness with letters aimed at leveraging the two famous names in their front office.
But Lovsness never returned to the Pirates.
Why he didn’t is a question that produces answers that vary to slight degree: did the letters from the Pirates get accidentally put away by his mother, who didn’t realize their value and didn’t tell Reed about them? Did she deliberately hide them to keep her son closer to the farm? Or did he know about them, and simply set them aside himself, deciding to move on with life?
Reed, Lindon and Kirk have thoughts on that. But the core fact is that Reed didn’t leave, and instead stayed near Cottonwood and built a long life around farming, family, and amateur baseball. He’s best-known locally for the three seasons he pitched for the terrific Milroy Yankees amateur teams of 1953-1955. In 1954, Lovsness posted a record of 18-0 for the Yankees, who won the state amateur championship. In the state title game, he struck out a record 20 opposing batters as the Yankees won.
After pitching three years in the Pirates’ minor league system in the late 1940s, he pitched another three years with a traveling U.S. Army team. He later told Kirk that he was at his ballplaying peak while with the Army, when he regularly faced opponents he said where the quality of pros in the low minor leagues. That may have helped keep the Pirates interested in him.
While in the service, he married his wife Betty, and, with farmland west of Cottonwood, he was at one of those crossroads where a choice sometimes has to be made between dream and responsibility, between staying where he was raised, or moving on. He was not alone in facing such a choice at that time: after decades of rural population increases from the late 19th century to 1940, the population throughout the rural Midwest dropped in a quick, unending downward spiral after World War II. People were drawn more and more to work and lifestyles in cities, and technology advances allowed farming to be done on larger scales with fewer people. In Minnesota, for instance, 50.2 percent of the state population in 1940 was considered rural. By 1950, that had dropped to 45.5 percent and by 1960 to 37.8 percent.
Still, for Lovsness, signs seemed to say he would return to the farm.
Amateur baseball – or town-team ball — in Minnesota in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s was a big-time game. There were 799 teams in the state in 1946, mostly composed of men out of the war or up-and-comers hoping to play college or pro ball, according to a July 26, 2013, story by Phil Ervin of Fox Sports North. Some already had been pro players, like Lovsness, and found they could still be paid — under the table, or in side arrangements with local businesses — and make as much as they would in the minor leagues.
Lovsness worked out an arrangement with Milroy to be paid a portion of the team’s net income at the end of the season, and wound up earning more than the $250 a month he had been paid in the minors.
Milroy, a small town of less than 300, put together a terrific team, both of locals and imports from nearby like Lovsness. The Yankees were consistently among the best teams in the state (and still are today), and had a reach that went well beyond their immediate locale. They commonly drew crowds of between 1,000 and 2,000 on Sunday afternoons – bigger attendance than some major league teams had during those same years. Their brash and intense manager, Bob Zwach, got his picture on Wheaties boxes in the 1980s. Two of its early team leaders, including Zwach, are in the Minnesota amateur baseball Hall of Fame. The Yankees are a central subject in a recent history book on baseball in rural America, written by Texas A&M historian and professor David Vaught.
Like a lot of rural boys who grew into ballplayers, Lovsness honed his skills on the farm and thought of the major leagues as he did so.
“I never owned a bicycle [as a young boy],” he is quoted as saying in an official team history written by Joe Kemp on the Milroy Yankees web site. “I put up a square [target] on our machine shed and threw and threw and threw, day after day. I was pretending that I was in the big leagues, and I was pitching seven innings.”
But before there was Milroy, there was baseball for Lovsness in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in South Carolina, in Alaska, and a host of other places that kept him — for years — the object of attention of the Pirates organization.
When he was 20, the web site said, Lovsness saw a brochure for the Joe Stripps Baseball School in Orlando, Fla. He took the winter bus to Florida and participated in the camp for $75. The Pirates signed him out of the camp for $2,000.
He graduated from Cottonwood High School in 1943. The Stripps camp he took part in was one of several during the 1940s, many of them the brainchild of or inspired by Branch Rickey, himself legendary for his role in helping Jackie Robinson break the major league color barrier in 1947.
Rickey was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s and became president of the Pirates in 1951. In the 1930s, he had built the St. Louis Cardinals into the best team in the National League by crafting an expansive minor league system that hoarded hundreds of talented ballplayers and fed the best to the major-league team. Rickey aimed to do the same for the Dodgers after World War II, inviting hundreds of ballplayers just out of the war to camps, where – with Sisler then the Dodgers’ director of scouting — he hoped to build a big farm system for Brooklyn.
“The Dodgers developed the largest and most successful farm system during the postwar years,” William Marshall wrote in his book Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951. “Branch Rickey’s organizational genius was again at work. By emphasizing ‘quality out of quantity,’ the Dodgers by 1947 were stoking farm clubs with players developed through tryout camps at Pensacola, Florida; Thomasville, North Carolina; and San Bernardino, California. The camps, which were like college campuses, had bowling alleys, swimming pools, and other recreational facilities. The players ate at well-stocked training tables. At Pensacola, the players were divided into nine teams. Each team had a manager who was responsible for familiarizing himself with his players’ capabilities and personalities. Scouts watched every workout game and then gathered with Dodger staff at the end of each day to analyze talent well into the night. At the beginning of the minor-league season, more than a thousand men had been evaluated.”
At the camp he attended, there were 200 other players, Lovsness said. But he stood out. He threw hard, and he threw strikes. And he was helped by a willingness to throw at batters’ heads, which, back then, were not protected with batting helmets. Batters just wore their cloth uniform caps to the plate.
Not that he liked throwing at batters, but it was part of the requirement for succeeding in the camps, Lovsness recalled: a pitcher had to show he not only had the talent, but the temperament, for pro ball.
“I got to pitch and I stopped ’em cold,” Lovsness said in an April 13 interview. “At that time, baseball was a tough game, boy. We threw right at the batters. We had to.
“We had a young pitcher from Minneapolis, and he wouldn’t throw at the batters. The next day he was gone. So I knew I had to throw at them, and I did.”
Lovsness still remembers the beanball sign his managers gave pitchers in the camp: a flick of the thumb against the index finger. There was a gesture and a sound, the thumb snapping upward. More than 60 years later, he could replicate the motion and the noise.
“He’d flick that thumb up in the air, and you knew what you had to do,” Lovsness said. “It was a different world,” he added, saying that beanballs are far less tolerated today.
Lovsness was chosen the starting pitcher for one of the two teams in the camp-ending all-star game.
As the long tryout ended, Lovsness was offered a contract by the Pirates and also a scholarship to pitch for the University of Georgia. He turned down the scholarship and signed with the Pirates.
According to the definitive baseball statistics web site Baseball-Reference.com, Lovsness’ minor-league playing height and weight were 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds.
In 1947, he pitched 193 innings for Rehoboth Beach, Del., of the Class D Eastern Shore League. He won 9 games, lost 15 and had a 4.38 ERA for a team that wasn’t very good — finishing with a record of 49-75, 41 games out of first place. Lovsness’ ERA was the second-best on the team, behind the 2.83 ERA of a left-hander named Joe Muir, who went on to pitch two seasons in the majors for Pittsburgh.
The next year, Lovsness did better and so did Rehoboth Beach. He had a record of 9-5 with an ERA of 3.11 in 31 games and 133 innings, as the team raised its record to 60-65. Lovsness was promoted before the season ended, however, to York, Pa., of the Class B Interstate League.
With York in 1948, Lovsness pitched in 10 games, including a spectacular performance in which he entered a game in relief in the fourth inning. He pitched 14 consecutive scoreless innings to win the game, and drew attention from the minor league team in New Orleans. York finished third in the Interstate League and three of its players went on to the major leagues.
In 1949, Lovsness pitched 16 games and 87 innings for the Uniontown Coal Barons of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where just two years before Whitey Ford had pitched. Lovsness had a record of 2-6 with a 6.31 ERA, for a below-average team, but also batted .333. Three of his teammates at Uniontown played in the majors eventually.
But it was about then that Lovsness’ baseball career and life took different directions.
His father Louis had died in 1948, leaving his mother Ellen and brother Rollan at home. In 1950, another war broke out, this time in Korea. Reed was drafted by the Army and assigned to a traveling baseball team, stationed in various places, including in Alaska for more than a year of his hitch. In 1951, in the service in Colorado Springs, he met Betty. They were married in June 1951.
He pitched for the Fifth Army baseball team in Alaska, with several other pros, providing entertainment and respite to troops for whom the prospect of deployment to Korea was real. More than a third of Lovsness’ unit in Alaska was shipped to Korea in time for a large and fierce Chinese counterattack with infantry infiltration.
“The Chinese attacked. They had all those soldiers and it was just wave after wave,” Lovsness said in 2011. “There were just horrendous [American] casualties.”
There was a 60 percent casualty rate in the soldiers from Lovsness’ unit who were sent to Korea, he said.
“I made the baseball team and that probably saved my life,” he said, because the ballplayers were not shipped to Korea. “God was looking out for me.”
And the Pirates were still on the lookout for him.
While he was in Alaska, a letter was sent to his parents’ home back near Cottonwood, he said in an interview for a story in December 2011. The letter was from the Pirates organization telling him he had been sold to the New Orleans minor league team, after he had turned down a move to Charleston, S.C. New Orleans would have been another step up the ladder closer to the major leagues.
However, he said in 2011 and 2015, he never saw the letter until he discovered the box almost 40 years later. He believes his mother stowed it and other correspondence from the Pirates away without ever looking at their contents.
“She just didn’t even look,” Reed said, believing his mother didn’t deliberately hide them from him. “But it was sort of a crazy thing to do.”
His son Lindon said he believes Reed’s mother may have kept them away from him on purpose, even burning one. Two of the remaining five letters are signed by Sisler. “I get chills when I see Sisler’s signature,” Lindon said.
Another letter, dated May 22, 1953, was written by Harold G. Roettger, assistant to the president (Rickey).
“Dear Reed,” Roettger’s letter began, “You may recall that I wrote you last September 12 regarding the procedure which you were to follow if you desired reinstatement to the active list upon your discharge from military service.
“It is my understanding that you have been discharged and that you are now on the Restrict List of the Charleston club, having failed to sign and report this spring.
“Our reports on you, as I told you in my previous letter, have been good and if you do have a future in baseball you should be pitching professionally somewhere this season. The Charleston club has given us permission to contact you. Accordingly, I am writing this letter to invite you to come to Pittsburgh at our expense to work out here under Mr. Rickey and George Sisler. After seeing you pitch, they can better advise you as to whether or not you should give thought to reporting to the Charleston or perhaps to another club, should Charleston be willing to reassign your contract.
“You may recall that Calvin Hogue remained out of baseball for some time until somewhat similarly invited to return to the active list a year ago and his history since that date speaks for itself. The same sort of opportunity can be yours if you make the most of it.”
While the Pirates lost a lot of games in the early 1950s, Branch Rickey’s genius was again taking hold. Through shrewd minor league trades and by building another solid farm system, he began grooming many gifted young players — including the great Roberto Clemente — and in 1960, the Pirates won the World Series.
Could Reed Lovsness have been part of that rise to glory in Pittsburgh? He doesn’t speculate himself, nor does his son Kirk.
Kirk Lovsness said he thinks it is possible his father simply put the letters away himself, and moved on with life, rediscovering them many years later. Not only did Reed have his father’s farmland to manage, but he added more land.
“He very seldom talked about playing pro ball until just recently,” Kirk said in April 2015. “In 1952 while he was still in the Army he bought his uncle’s farm. When he was discharged he was married and didn’t want to live on the road like he had. He said he could earn more farming and playing amateur ball for Milroy than he could in the Pirates organization. I think he got the letters and just put them away so he wouldn’t look back.
“I’m sure his mother would rather have him around than away all year playing ball; he was already gone for six years and his father died in 1948 and she would have wanted him to come back to the farm. He didn’t talk much at all about pro ball and kept a pretty low profile about it. He said when he was playing amateur ball it wasn’t uncommon for the opposing fans to ride him about not making it in pro ball — but I think there was a lot more heckling then than there is now. They served a lot of beer and it was just part of the game experience.”
With Milroy, Lovsness played from 1953-55, then pitched for several other teams in the area before retiring in the late 1950s. He is a member of the Milroy Yankees Hall of Fame.
“When Reed would pitch you would here a lot of thuds in the catchers mitt…,” Milroy teammate Joe Dolan said in a quote posted on the Yankees’ web site. “He threw hard and was fun to play behind.”
In the Milroy Yankee history written by Joe Kemp, Bob Zwach remembers crowds as large as 2,000 people on a Sunday afternoon during the 1953-1955 period, with $1,000 worth of beer being sold. Farmers, families, fans — everyone came for a full day out.
Some came to make money, too, wrote Kemp, quoting Lovsness who said some in the crowd were bettors.
“They would walk up and down the third baseline with fist full of money asking for bets,” Lovsness said. “I imagine those who bet for Milroy made a lot of money, because they would always buy the players a beer afterwards, and we won many of those games.”
As Kirk Lovsness said, it appears Reed also made money pitching in those amateur games.
After he left the service in 1952, Reed turned down an offer to pitch for neighboring Marshall and accepted Bob Zwach’s offer to pitch for Milroy, wrote Texas A&M historian David Vaught in his 2012 book The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America. Zwach and others considering the recruitment of Lovsness as Milroy’s greatest coup, the difference, Zwach said, between the Yankees being “a good team and a great team.”
Vaught wrote: “The lanky right-hander accepted Zwach’s offer because while having made $250 a month in pro ball and entertaining similar offers to pitch for Marshall, he eventually raked in twice that much playing for Milroy. The money came not from salary, because that was against the rules, but from shares of the team’s income left over at the end of the season after all expenses were paid, as Zwach explained it…”
There were other forms of richness for Lovsness close to home. He ended up owning about 400 acres of farm land, on which he grew grain crops. He and Betty have been married for 64 years, or two years longer than George Sisler’s letter first asked for Lovsness to reconsider baseball. He’s been a lifelong member of St. Lucas Lutheran Church, a country church a couple of miles north of his farm. Family has long been close: his mother Ellen lived until 1980 and both of his sons and their families live in the Cottonwood area.
While he’s had no regrets, there are times when Reed wonders about what could have happened. Although he said no to Charleston, he would have strongly considered New Orleans, had he known about the sale of his contract, he said in 2011.
“If I had to do it over, I don’t think I would have done it differently,” he said in 2011. “I would have had a different life, you know? I wouldn’t have the good wife I have, and all kinds of other things that have made my life good.”
Personal interviews with Reed Lovsness, Kirk Lovsness and Lindon Lovsness
Letters from Pittsburgh Pirates organization to Reed Lovsness
The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America by David Vaught. 2013, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland
Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951 by William Marshall. 1999, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky
Healing Waters Parish monthly newsletter. December 2011, Hanley Falls, Minnesota
State Library of Iowa, tables prepared from U.S. Census Bureau data
Milroy Yankees official team history, Joe Kemp. http://www.milroyyankees.com
Story on Minnesota amateur baseball history, Phil Ervin. July 26, 2013, Fox Sports North network
A letter from Hall-of-Famer George Sisler saying Lovsness would be making a “grave mistake” if he didn’t return to the Pirates.